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Movie Reviews : ‘Cowboy’: Roundup at the N.Y. Corral : Woody Harrelson is the sole bright spot in a reworking of the ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ riff of ‘bumpkins’ out of their element.

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TIMES FILM CRITIC

Woody Harrelson is the only reason to subject yourself to “The Cowboy Way,” but to be a straight-shooter about things, he is not reason enough. Instead of enhancing his surroundings, Harrelson’s breezy, amusing performance simply underlines everything the rest of the film is not.

Based on yet another idea from the cornucopian mind of producer Brian Grazer who, if the press notes are to be believed, came up with this gem “while horseback riding in his native California,” “Cowboy” will be recognized by film buffs as a reworking of the tip-top “Coogan’s Bluff,” directed by Don Siegel and starring an especially laconic Clint Eastwood as an Arizona lawman out of his element on the steamy pavements of New York.

It is perhaps a sign of cinematic inflation that this time around “The Cowboy Way” is forced to send not one but two stand-up Western gentlemen into the wilds of Manhattan to right a wrong and see that justice is done.

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New Mexico cowboys Pepper Lewis (Harrelson) and Sonny Gilstrap (Kiefer Sutherland) are a formidable team-roping combination and best pals since they were toddlers. But, in one of the film’s many bogus plot contrivances, Sonny has been giving his partner “the Eskimo treatment” since Pepper was a mysterious no-show at the finals of a key tournament.

“There we were, one steer away from the national championship,” grouses Sonny in one of the many pieces of presumably authentic Bill Wittliff dialogue. Pepper, you may be sure, had his reasons for staying away, but once revealed they, like much else here, turn out to be as lame as an overworked plow-horse.

Sonny and Pepper’s best pal is a wise old Latino named Nacho (Joaquin Martinez) who accuses cranky Sonny of having “the heart of a tiny raisin.” But before he can explain where he got such a gift for metaphor, Nacho is called to New York to try to rescue his daughter Theresa (Cara Buono).

She, illogically enough, is a dewy illegal just off the boat from Cuba who is in the unfortunate clutches of a bunch of slimeballs ramrodded by the nefarious Stark (Dylan McDermott). Forced to work in a sweatshop while Stark practically drools over her needlework, Theresa is clearly in need of the kind of help only two hopelessly naive cowboys in Manhattan can provide.

As directed by Gregg Champion, whose only previous theatrical feature was the forgotten “Short Time,” “The Cowboy Way” has a tendency to milk every bumpkin-in-the-big-town situation it can think of. As a result, elements of “Midnight Cowboy” (Pepper catching the lascivious eye of effete fashion folk) awkwardly joust for position with cartoony violent echoes of “Home Alone.”

Getting bruised in the melee are some usually reliable actors, including Ernie Hudson as a mounted policeman who loves the West. Especially lost is Sutherland, whose thankless role as the straight-arrow, censorious Sonny mostly calls on him to frown and say, “I’ve had it with you,” to the irrepressible Pepper.

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Losing patience with Pepper is always understandable. A macho pain in the neck who never stops talking and preening, he could exasperate a saint. But thanks to Harrelson’s casual flair and his considerable comic energy, Pepper grows on you so much that his rare absences from the screen bring the picture to a dead halt.

While this is not a performance that wins awards, it does demonstrate the kind of star presence that the movies can never have too much of. What “The Cowboy Way” does best is underline how much more there is to Woody Harrelson than how he looks in his underwear or with a hat over his private parts.

* MPAA rating: PG-13 for “violence, some language and comic sensuality.” Times guidelines: It includes considerable brutality and a comic scene of Harrelson’s hat apparently defying gravity. ‘The Cowboy Way’

Woody Harrelson: Pepper

Kiefer Sutherland: Sonny

Dylan McDermott: Stark

Ernie Hudson: Officer Sam Shaw

Cara Buono: Theresa

Imagine Entertainment presents a Brian Grazer production, released by Universal. Director Gregg Champion. Producer Brian Grazer. Executive producers G. Mac Brown, Karen Kehela, Bill Wittliff. Screenplay by Bill Wittliff, story by Rob Thompson and Bill Wittliff. Cinematographer Dean Semler. Editor Michael Tronick. Costumes Aude Bronson-Howard. Music David Newman. Production design John Jay Moore. Art director William Barclay. Set decorator Leslie Pope. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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